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EU in the balance

A LACK of information on the EU and dissatisfaction with the government's policies may endanger the validity of the upcoming referendum on Slovakia's entry to the EU, according to observers.
Slovakia is one of 10 countries that have been invited to join the EU in May 2004. But prior to entry, a crucial national vote will take place, scheduled for May 16 and 17, asking citizens whether they agree with their country entering the economic bloc.
A number of analysts and some opposition political parties, however, have said that ordinary citizens have not been given enough information about the EU and what entry into the EU will mean. Others have warned that discontent with Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's right-wing cabinet may discourage some people from attending the vote in protest against the government.


Displeasure at the cabinet's policies, short campaign may put national vote at risk
photo: TASR

A LACK of information on the EU and dissatisfaction with the government's policies may endanger the validity of the upcoming referendum on Slovakia's entry to the EU, according to observers.

Slovakia is one of 10 countries that have been invited to join the EU in May 2004. But prior to entry, a crucial national vote will take place, scheduled for May 16 and 17, asking citizens whether they agree with their country entering the economic bloc.

A number of analysts and some opposition political parties, however, have said that ordinary citizens have not been given enough information about the EU and what entry into the EU will mean. Others have warned that discontent with Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's right-wing cabinet may discourage some people from attending the vote in protest against the government.

Even deputy prime minister for European integration Pál Csáky admitted recently that there was a "very high" risk that the referendum would be invalid due to low voter turnout.

He stressed, however, that people must realise that the vote is not about punishing the cabinet, but rather a chance for this post-communist state to become a member of a strong bloc that will secure a better future for its inhabitants.

According to the Slovak constitution, 50 percent of the voting public must cast their ballots in order for the referendum to be valid. None of Slovakia's previous referenda, four in total, managed to attract the required 50 percent of voters.

The campaign that is not

In January this year, the Dzurinda cabinet approved a campaign strategy that consisted of two stages - a so-called voter mobilisation part, which started May 4, and an information part, which is scheduled to come after the referendum.

That strategy was described as "upside-down" by the chairman of the Centre for European Politics (CPEP) NGO, Kamil Sládek.

"I am starting to pray that the referendum is valid. In many central or eastern parts of the country the level of information could be compared to that of [Mount] Kilimanjaro in Africa. People know that it exists but it's somewhere far away from them," Sládek said.

"Blaming the cabinet would be a simplification, but it needs to be said that because the cabinet put EU entry and informing the citizens about the organisation among its priorities, the government has failed in this respect," he said.

Csáky has become the centre of criticism not just from independent observers but also from opposition parliamentary parties, primarily Smer and the Communist Party (KSS).

The former continues to request Csáky's resignation.

"The referendum and the related information campaign are very important, not just for the cabinet but for the whole country. It is exactly this agenda that Deputy Prime Minister Csáky has been neglecting," Smer's deputy chairman Boris Zala said.

Csáky maintained, however, that he was doing his job properly and in line with the cabinet-approved strategy.

"Why should I lose sleep if some fans go to an empty stadium at 15:30 and start shouting that the captain should be changed because no goal has been scored, when the match doesn't start until 16:30. That's not my problem," he said in a recent interview with one of the country's biggest-selling dailies, Pravda.

Turnout is key

Opinion polls in Slovakia continue to show a strong pro-EU stance, with 66.8 percent of respondents in the most recent survey stating that they would participate in the referendum, and 77.2 percent of those saying they would vote yes.

However, in neighbouring Hungary, which held a referendum on EU entry several weeks ago, pre-vote surveys also suggested that 70 percent of voters would participate in the referendum. In the end, only 46 percent went to the polls.

Experts on the Slovak constitution are unsure what effect an invalid referendum result would have on Slovakia's EU aspirations.

According to analyst Michal Vašečka with the Institute for Public Affairs think tank, EU membership could either be approved by a constitutional majority in parliament, or a second referendum would have to be held with a question modified from the current "do you want Slovakia to join the EU?". A referendum asking citizens the same question could only be held in three years' time.

But observers and officials agree that either way, doubts over the legitimacy of entry into the EU could be thrown up in the future.

Despite saying that the lack of information on the EU was a problem, several ordinary Slovaks who spoke to The Slovak Spectator said they would still participate in the vote.

"I don't have enough information and it seems like there is almost no campaign. There are some ads on TV and radio [telling people to go to vote] but that is all," said Andrea Novacká, 29.

Mechanical engineer Jozef Dráb, 43, added: "I don't think I know very much about the EU. I know that [membership] should increase our living standards and that our children will have the chance to travel and work abroad like other Europeans, but I would welcome more information."

According to a survey published on May 2, and carried out by the Slovak Statistics Office, 49 percent of Slovaks feel they do not know enough about the possible effects of EU membership.

Protest against the cabinet

Several opposition politicians - such as Vladimír Mečiar of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and Ladislav Jača, KSS central secretary - reported that a number of people they met while campaigning for EU entry said they wanted to ignore the referendum to show their protest at the cabinet.

"The middle and older generations often tell us that they are sceptical about what the EU will bring to them, and many also say that they will not go to vote in protest at the arrogant right-wing cabinet," Jača said.

In addition to the mobilisation campaign the cabinet ran, individual political parties have decided to organise their own small campaigns focusing on mobilising the electorate.

During a recent visit to Slovakia, European Commissioner Günter Verheugen also called on Slovaks to participate in the vote.

"It is the most important decision about the future of the country since independence, not only for the current generation, but also for the children of their children," he said.

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